A Circus for the Brain

The 2011 Children’s Poet Laureate speaks.
By J. Patrick Lewis interviewed by Sylvia Vardell (Sylvia Vardell)

After serving as a professor of economics at Otterbein College for over two decades, J. Patrick Lewis turned to writing children’s poetry. His first book of poems for children, A Hippopotamusn’t, was published in 1990, and he has followed with over seventy children’s books since then, most of them poetry. He is also a contributor of children's book reviews for the New York Times, makes over 30 elementary school visits a year, and is a frequent speaker at workshops and conferences. He recently received the 2011 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Excellence in Children’s Poetry Award for his body of work.

The themes and subjects of J. Patrick Lewis’ poetry collections are wide-ranging with a frequent focus on science related and historical topics. In addition, he enjoys experimenting with poetic form and wordplay and has authored everything from narrative poems to concrete poetry to limericks to riddles to haiku. Here, he shares his thoughts on his poetic influences, process, preferences, parodies, the place of poetry in children’s lives, and his plans for the future.

SV: Why do you think poetry is important for children?

JPL: Children spend their whole lives talking, listening, reading, and dreaming in one language (or more, if they are lucky), so why not encourage them to do all those things in the most pleasurable possible way—with poetry. Great poetry is a circus for the brain. It’s ten pounds of excitement in a nine-pound bag. But children won’t know what that means unless we offer them the best. Soon, they’ll be asking for second and third helpings. Even though few children will become poets, poetry helps them realize that one of the most phenomenal gifts humans get free of charge is the English language. And there is nothing in any language more beautiful, more inspiring and thought-provoking than poetry.

SV: How did you come to the writing of poetry for children when you’re also a scholar of economics and Russian history?

JPL:  My usual answer (a joke) is that an economist can become a children’s poet only after a very delicate operation. Actually, I wanted to be a writer first, and so I wrote for nearly 30 years in economics. But very few people read economics unless they are roped to a chair. Happily, when I was still a pup (but almost 40!), I discovered poetry— “the road not taken . . . and that has made all the difference.”

SV: What part did poetry play in your own childhood?

JPL:  Where was the magical teacher when I was in 2nd, 5th, 8th or 16th grade who would say, “I’m going to do you a favor, sonny. Read Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost, and tell me if you don’t come down with a fever of delight.”  Alas, it never happened. So I’m sad to say that poetry played no part in my childhood. I’m a walking, talking example of, “It’s never too late.”  Good things happen to those who wait.

SV: Which poets or poems do you most admire and why? Or which have been most influential in your own development as a poet?

JPL: The giants Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll in children’s poetry, though there is a whole list of more or less forgotten poets I return to: Arthur Guiterman, Hilaire Belloc, Charles and Guy Carryl, so many that the winds of death have scattered. Ogden Nash was a big influence. But I spend much more time reading adult poets: Dickinson, Frost, Auden, Larkin, Hardy, Roethke, Housman, Robinson, Fenton, Causley, so many to name. I believe poets are influenced by every good poem they read, even though they may not be able to say exactly how.

SV: Do you follow a regular process in creating your poetry? Care to share?

JPL: Writers are odd folk; peccadilloes abound. Each one of us has a unique way of answering this question. When I’m not making school visits, I spend at least eight hours a day, seven days a week working. By working I mean reading (which always comes first), then writing, rewriting, doing research.

SV: Your poetry is often grounded in history or historical topics. How did you come to that focus? Why is that important to you?

JPL: My objective, as I’ve always said, is to range across the curriculum and all ages. My choice of subjects—the Civil War, extraordinary women, notable black Americans, famous monuments, geography, Galileo, Michelangelo, and the like—stems from a sense that I might be able to add my own small voice, with a heavy dose of humility, to these well-traveled themes, and not repeat what others have done. I’m always searching for a new untouched—or insufficiently touched—subject.

SV: You seem to delight in experimenting with poetic form. Which are your favorite forms? Are there any you would still like to try?

JPL: Ballad stanzas or common measures are overused in children’s poetry, I think. A whole book of ballad stanzas, even if it’s a very funny collection, gets to be monotonous. There are hundreds of other forms, most foreign born, just begging to be tried. I think children’s poets should be willing to take more risks. Unfortunately long forms seem to have fallen out of favor with publishers and parents. So short forms are winning the day. I can’t choose a favorite form since so much depends upon the subject, whether it’s nonsense verse, nonfiction topics, biographical poetry. I invented a new verse form, the zeno, but it has almost no chance of finding a stall in the redoubtable stable of verse forms, simply because its rhyming requirements are too strict.

SV: Poetry parodies seem to be a strong suit for you, channeling your wicked sense of humor. How do you select the poems to parody and then create those riffs?

JPL: Parodies are enormously fun. I think of them as compliments (as well as complements) to the originals, rather than mere send-ups, even if they do add a bit of mischief. I have a Harcourt collection of parodies coming out in 2012 entitled, Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Classic Poems in Mathematical Puzzles. The key to selecting poems to parody is that the original must be more or less well-known. If you parody unknown poems, no one is likely to see what you are about. Few remember Isaac Watts’s “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” today because it was buried beautifully by Lewis Carroll’s parody of it, “How Doth the Little Crocodile.”  But Watts’s ditty was popular three hundred years ago.

SV: Most of your work appears in picture book format accompanied by art by a variety of illustrators. How do you see the role of illustration in poetry books for children?

JPL: The marriage of text and art is nowhere more exquisite than in children’s picture books, and I have been inexplicably lucky in the illustrators who have been chosen for my books, especially at Creative Editions, which makes the most gorgeous picture books in the world, in my opinion. Ownership of a book is divided in half, or perhaps in thirds, if you count the important work of the book’s designer. My dear friend, the late Myra Cohn Livingston, used to argue that the poem should be surrounded by nothing but white space. For adult collections, I agree. But for children’s books, the artist is capable of evoking the words in surprisingly new and provocative ways. While artist and poet rarely collaborate, the best picture books look or should look like they are the result of seamless cooperation.

SV: What is your favorite part about visiting kids in schools and libraries?

JPL: Having done over 450 author visits here and abroad, I think I can safely say that the children’s appreciation of books is the most rewarding part of author visits. That and the obvious pleasure they take in hearing poetry spoken. Riddles are always great favorites, simply because they are interactive. And they treat you like a rock star!  (Which my wife has thus far refused to do.) I hasten to add that being with those amazing beings called teachers and librarians is another reason why school visits are so rewarding. Without seeming to curry favor, I don’t think most people appreciate the hard work and imagination of the shepherds of our youth.

SV: What topics still beg for poetry for children, in your opinion? If you could write about anything (regardless of commercial viability), what would you choose?

JPL:  For older childen, more nonfiction rendered in poetry. This year Jane Yolen and I have a new collection, Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers:  A Life of Marc Chagall in Verse (Creative Editions). Next year my Thunder Before Lightning: Poems for the Civil Righteous will be published by Chronicle. For younger children, my fond wish would be for a renewed interest in the long story in nonsense verse, like Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” or W.S. Gilbert’s “Etiquette.”

SV: In this digital age, what do you see as the ideal role of technology in creating and/or promoting poetry for young people?

JPL:  I think I was born too soon to appreciate fully the wonders of the new technologies, so I dare not hazard a guess as to what it all means for children’s publishing and poetry. In fact, the warp speed at which the digital age is flying by suggests that none of us can predict the virtual future. I’m holding on as tightly as I can to see how the future will unfold.

SV: As the recipient of BOTH the Children’s Poet Laureate distinction and the National Council of Teachers of English Excellence in Poetry Award, what are your plans for your “reign”?

JPL: That remains to be seen, but I’ve got several ideas I’m eager to explore with the good people at the Poetry Foundation. The erstwhile Children’s Laureates Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman have left mighty big shoes to fill. If excitement and enthusiasm count for anything at all, I like to think that I’m up to the task, and I can’t wait to see what the next two years will bring for all of us in this corner of children’s literature. When I received the call from John Barr, the Poetry Foundation’s director, informing me of the appointment, I was thrilled beyond measure. That day and for many days thereafter, it felt like a butterfly was dancing on my heart; likewise when the NCTE Excellence in Children’s Poetry Award committee called in November. I’m deeply grateful to NCTE and to everyone connected with the Poetry Foundation for awarding me what I think of as the brass rings of children’s poetry.

Originally Published: May 12th, 2011

Sylvia Vardell is a professor of children’s literature at Texas Woman’s University and author of Poetry Aloud Here and the acclaimed blog, PoetryForChildren.

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  1. August 18, 2012
     russ stauffer

    J. Patrick was my prof in undergrad studies of economics - - and
    even then he was the most immensely creative, studied and
    prolific guy I'd ever met. Oddly, he was also a wonderful person
    to know, with a warmth and openness uncommon among his
    professorial peers.

    What a gift he is, and his books just magnify that. -= Russ

  2. March 19, 2013

    Hello this guy eats Bacon!